Stream-of-Consciousness Post

  • This book chapter, a gift that keeps on giving. And by giving, I mean taking. Mostly the will to live. The book has been in the making for literally years, and there’s constantly some additional shit that needs to be done by us, the authors, rather than by the typesetters and copyeditors that the publisher — who will be one making money from the sales — presumably employs.
  • How the hell am I again so busy and so behind?! Where is all this work coming from?
  • Nearly two decades into the career, I still have to fight tooth and nail to carve out time for thinking during the semester. Why are our jobs so out of whack that the things we are evaluated on are the things everyone around us wants us to have absolutely no time for?
  • How do we get anything meaningful done, seriously?
  • No, seriously, how? 
  • Loudly for everyone in the back: A course belongs to the department and college and university, not to any one faculty member. A course belongs to the department and college and university, not to any one faculty member. Senior people who refuse to step aside and let someone else (usually someone junior) teach “their” course should be ashamed of themselves; I don’t care they’re the  one who developed the course, it’s not their personal property. Departments should not support this toxic territoriality. Intellectually agile people should be able and willing to teach a bunch of courses. Teaching across the curriculum is part of the job, not a tax on doing research FFS.
  • We have to prioritize, when hiring, people who will be committed not just to the advancement of their own research agenda, but to all aspects of the job. There are plenty of excellent people who will do that. We do not have to hire the most self-centered candidate. However, it is not easy to convey that on the search committee without sounding like a jerk.
  • Sadly, those excellent well-rounded people will find themselves screaming into the void, as I am doing now: How the fuck do I carve out time to finish the revision of this paper with all the other shit I have to do ASAP? Those who treat teaching and service as a chore likely won’t, but they make things worse for everyone else by not contributing.
  • People, be kind and helpful to junior colleagues, FFS, why is this something that has to be spelled out for people who are supposedly educators and mentors?
  • Salty along several axes these days.

How’s life, academic blogosphere? 


  1. I little pushback on the claim that courses should always be teachable by multiple faculty: Our department spans a pretty wide range, and we allowed new faculty to create “boutique” undergrad courses in their specialities. Some of these courses are not teachable by anyone else in the department. Some of our core courses now have multiple faculty teaching them in rotation, but many of our classes are still tied to single faculty members. (When I retired, my electronics course was discontinued, as no one else in the department knows any electronics, for example.)

    Having someone squatting on a fun course that others could teach, in order to get out of teaching a non-fun course, could be a real problem, though—that sounds like what you are complaining about, and I agree that can be a serious problem in a department.

  2. Have you thought about putting for chair/director? You could help a lot of the junior folks that way. I’ve been director for a few years now. It can be incredibly frustrating but also pretty rewarding to see the junior folks do great things!

    Does your chair turnover every few years to another senior person or does one person serve for a long time?

  3. @Profdirector, we do have a full chair election every four years. Some chairs do two terms. I don’t think I have the right personality and temperament for this type of leadership role. There’s a lot of schmoozing with the dean and deanlets, provost, chancellor, dealing with donors and alumni; lots and lots of meetings; having to listen to all sorts of inanity and pretend like it’s deep revelatory insight… There are people who can do it with a smile, but it’s not for me. Our current chair is very good at getting things done without going bananas; I don’t think I’d be able to do that. Also, I am nowhere nearly as likable as I would have to be to be successful in a people-oriented role. I do very well with students and junior faculty, where I am in the teacher and/or helper role, and I am patient and tactful. With other grownups, I suffer from a lack of patience, a big mouth, and just a general absence of smoothness and polish necessary for midcareer leadership.
    I’m probably most useful where I am now — getting kids fired up for science in the classroom, where my doodles and dad jokes get appreciated because they help all the math go down more easily. Academic leadership is no place for a tightly wound female professor with a bad-joke Tourette’s.

  4. I have to disagree about courses belonging to people v. departments. Courses that fulfill requirements, absolutely they belong to the department. Mainstream electives? Sure. But courses developed from scratch, creatively designed and marketed to attract undergrads who might not normally take something off the beaten path? Hell yeah, they belong to me, or whoever. It’s intellectual property. (And that does not mean that I don’t also teach across the curriculum).

    If you’re having trouble finding the time/energy to get meaningful work done, probably not a good idea to become chair LOL.

  5. Anon, I suppose we will have to disagree here. Yes, the course content as you developed it is intellectual property, but one could argue that you developed the course as part of your employment as a professor, so it belongs to your employer. That’s how this argument would go if the university were a corporation, but I am not a fan of the corporatization of the university. My personal argument would be more along the practical lines: you don’t have to share any of your course materials with a junior faculty member if you don’t want to; I don’t think anyone can make you. However, the actual course title and number belong to the university. You don’t have the right to prevent someone else from teaching similar (but not identical) content under the same label. At my university, new course numbers are treated like rare gems; it’s very labor-intensive to get a new one introduced, and it’s impossible to introduce a new one when a similar one already exists not only in a given department but in any of the closely related departments. There’s a whole lengthy process, involving endorsements from multiple departments, to make sure there isn’t duplication, before a new course is introduced. Bottom line, people have to share courses, even if not course materials. Those who refuse end up effectively blocking other people in their very subarea (typically junior people) from ever teaching a graduate course in their own specialty! That shit makes junior faculty say “screw this” and leave.
    In my department, junior faculty always get started with existing graduate courses. While undergrad courses do have a set curriculum that everyone follows, there is much more freedom with graduate courses, and we expect that content will vary some (or a lot) with instructor.

  6. @xykademiqz, departmental and campus cultures about creation of courses varies a lot. Here, we generally have new faculty create a new course in their specialty, then work them into rotation on the core courses. Creating a new course here is not bureaucratically very difficult (a syllabus needs to be created that meets certain specs and differences from very similar courses need to be noted). The boutique courses that new faculty create are not generally ones that can be taught by others, though some have gone into rotation as more faculty in the same field are hired.

  7. Oof. I’ve never heard of such a bureaucratic process for getting a new course on the books. I can imagine that would mean that everyone needs to be more generous, but it also sounds like you have a very focused curriculum. Our process is trivial and our curriculum is kind of flabby. Lots of room for “experimental” courses.

    My rule of thumb: If there are reasonable, mainstream textbooks available for the subject of your course, the course probably is not novel enough to consider as intellectual property. If you’re cobbling together readings for your course from misc. sources — basically assembling an outline for a textbook that does not yet exist — then it’s yours. It’s a creative, scholarly work.

    I am just finishing the syllabus for a new course I can pretty much guarantee no one has ever taught before, anywhere. In fact, just writing this comment makes me realize that it would make an excellent subject for a popular book. I’ll put it on my list of retirement projects. I’m sure the subject would make you roll your eyes!

  8. Fun to see the range of philosophy on “owning” courses. I’m actually joint between two departments with radically different policies on it – one department has faculty create a course, and then generally they teach it for 20+ years… the other has a strict, “teach this three times and you’re out” policy. Both kind of work for each department’s situation – one with a very standard curriculum and a lot of service classes, and the other with a more boutique style (and a much smaller headcount, so you can’t assume you can find a good replacement for a given course).

  9. Our course system is similar to xyk’s, though how difficult it is to get a similar course to one in another department 100% depends on how difficult the other department is being. Some don’t care and some (one of our interdisciplinary departments, for example) will fight you tooth and nail if you suggest a remotely similarly titled class.

    We actually have a list of objectives for official classes. Anybody who teaches the class must include the objectives, but otherwise there’s discretion. One of the things I did last year as part of my service was use the results of our employer survey to make sure things employers wanted (ex. Excel, presentation skills, writing memos, writing 3-5 page information briefs) showed up in the objectives somewhere in our core courses.

    I always share all my material with people. I have dropboxes for each class. No sense in reinventing the wheel and my normal lecture is amazing. The only problem is when people post my solutions electronically on the internet, which happened once and now I’m like don’t do that.

  10. In my department most everyone has one service course that they teach forever and ever and one or two alternating elective courses that they could continue or change over time. So, I think I have taught a total of four or five different courses in 13 years? My husband’s department is in a different college (same U.) and they seem to love to play musical chairs on an annual basis such that he had five new course preps in his first five years. Some people seem to really like the variety and challenge of teaching new stuff. I prefer being really good at the thing I know best. Anyway, different styles play to different strengths.
    One of my best friends in my department has never been able to teach the course that’s her specific specialty because a (more) senior prof teaches it and I know that has been a huge frustration. I have no idea why people wouldn’t be willing to at least rotate a course every other year! I also have no idea why the department head has never been willing to kick some butts in support of junior folks.

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